Looking back, it is hard to believe that this is a camera I willingly chose to work with. I had been seeking an expanded point of view since the late 1970s. Just a year ago, I was using multiple images to fabricate complex vistas for the Trail Markers project. A year before that, there was the series of wide-ranging, wide-visioned panoramas taken with the Horizont panoramic camera.
It’s 1987. Those projects are completed. I’m looking for the next logical step in my photographic explorations. A tiny classified ad on the back pages of Shutterbug magazine grabs my attention. On offer was an antique Cirkut No. 6 Outfit panoramic camera. Without knowing anything about Cirkut cameras, other than their ability to take large scale, full-circle panoramic images, I place my order with the vintage camera dealer in some New England state, for something like $1,000 dollars. The exact details of the transaction are lost. The receipt is long gone, the Shutterbug magazine recycled. It was a hazy start to an adventure that would take me into a new millennium, along the way producing three photographic projects and a number of solo and group exhibitions.
My Cirkut No. 6 Outfit is but one model in a family of Cirkut cameras. It starts with the 1904 patent for the Cirkut camera by William J. Johnston, a former Canadian. The cameras were first manufactured by Rochester Panoramic Camera Company in 1905, a company owned by Johnston and his new partner Fred W. Brehm. It seems the company quickly went bankrupt and merged with the Century Camera Company that same year. In 1907, Century merged with Eastman Kodak Company. A sales brochure from that time states Kodak’s case for purchasing the Cirkut:
The Cirkut photographer is not hampered by the limits set by the size of his camera. He can make his negative as long or short as may be required to produce the best pictorial effect. He can include in his view any angle–even the complete circle of 360 degrees–and all on one daylight-loading Eastman Film.
The Century Camera Division of Eastman Kodak Company sold Cirkuts until 1915. Kodak’s Folmer & Schwing Division took over from 1915-17. In 1917, the name changed to Folmer & Schwing Department. By 1926, Kodak was forced to stop production and sell assets of the Folmer & Schwing Department to the Folmer Graflex Corporation. By that time, the popularity of the Cirkut had waned. However, the in demand Cirkut No. 10 continued to be manufactured until 1945.
Because my Cirkut No. 6 Outfit is clearly labelled, front and back, as a Folmer & Schwing Division camera, it must date from 1915-17.
The first rotating-lens panoramic camera, Friedrich von Martens’ Megaskop, dates back to 1844, and, by the time the Cirkut came into production, many panoramic cameras had come and gone. However, the Cirkut was wildly popular prior to World War One. It was viewed as a money-maker for its unique ability to capture large groups of people in a single shot.
Chances are good that you have seen a Cirkut camera picture. Any long and narrow photograph of a community club, a church group or an entire class of students was no doubt taken with a Cirkut. Some photographers, such as Eugene O. Goldbeck of Texas built successful careers on the back of a Cirkut camera.
During its heyday, five versions of the Cirkut camera were manufactured. Two were referred to as Cirkut Outfits, the No. 6 (mine) and the No. 8. Outfits consisted of a Cirkut attachment that could be mounted on the conventional view camera and wood tripod included in the Outfit package. There were also three Cirkut Cameras, the No. 5, No. 10 and No. 16, where the panoramic feature is built into the camera. The numbering system refers to the width of film the camera is designed to use. For example, the No. 5 uses a spool of 5” x 42” film while the No. 16 uses a whopping 16” x 240” piece of film. My No. 6 is designed for a 6½” x 72” spool of film.
All Circuits operate in the same way. A clockwork motor is wound with a key, just like an antique clock. A switch on the back of the camera is turned. This starts the motor, which drives a small gear protruding from the base of the camera. The gear meshes with a large circular gear on the circumference of the turntable base. This is what rotates the camera in a circle.
Meanwhile, inside the camera, the same clockwork motor is also dragging film from its spool, past an open shutter and onto a take-up drum. The shutter, which is opened by the same switch that starts the motor, is actually a narrow, vertical slit the same width as the film. The exposure ends when the switch on the camera back is rotated once more, stopping the motor and closing the shutter.
On my No. 6 Outfit, the Cirkut attachment mounts on the rear of the supplied R.B. Cycle Graphic 5” x 7” field camera, glamorous with its lacquered mahogany woodwork, brass hardware and burgundy leather bellows. The front lens mount, which allows a modest vertical shift for perspective control, holds an 8” (203mm) lens with f/sops ranging from f/8 to f/256. The lens is a convertible-type, meaning the front element can be removed, making it a 14” (356mm) lens. The optics are mounted in a brass and silver, pneumatically-dampened shutter with an attractive steam punk look.
Like any view camera, this one has a standard film holder at the rear and a ground glass screen for viewing the image on the other side of the lens. The difference here is that the Cirkut does not look in one particular direction. It points in all directions.
While watching the image on the ground glass, under the cover of a dark cloth, I rotate the camera on its turntable, carefully sidestepping behind it, keeping one eye on my footing and the other on the screen image. It must be an odd scene to onlookers, this pair of legs under a black cloak, spinning in a circle behind some odd, archaic device. But I’m busy under there, determining where to start and stop the camera’s rotation and what will be in the picture as the camera swings between the two end points. There is no way of viewing the entire image at one glance, only as brief 5” x 7” snatches on the ground glass that need to be mentally stitched together and pre-visualized as the final, very long composition.
Once the image is focussed and composed, the ground glass back is removed and replaced with the Cirkut back, ready for exposure.
Shutter speeds are not set on the lens, which needs to remain open while the film is being exposed. Instead, shutter speeds, ranging from 1/2 to 1/12 second, are assigned with a lever mounted on the back of the Cirkut attachment. In reality, the lever is controlling the camera’s rotation speed and, therefore, the amount of time the film is exposed to light as it passes the shutter slit inside the camera.
The Cirkut also come with a set of brass gears. Each is a different diameter and, depending on the focal length of the lens (8” or 14”) and the set focus distance, the appropriate gear is screwed into the base of the Cirkut. This is the gear that the clockwork motor drives, as described above.
As difficult as it may be for you to understand the camera’s operation from my written description, for me it is equally baffling to comprehend the complex and interacting movements of a rotating camera and a piece of film being pulled across an open slit, all of which, somehow, manages to produce a continuous-tone five foot long negative. Of course, the answer lies in mathematics and geometry and optics. All beyond me. I prefer to think of it as magic. Or a ballet of light.
It is a ballet of infinite delicacy. There is a beauty to the smooth movement of the camera as it starts its circular path, scanning its surrounds, clockwork motor gently whirring. I am the choreographer and, now, all I can do is watch as the performance unfolds.
The stage is set for my work with the Cirkut. A tale to be continued in next week’s walkclickmake post.
Many thanks to Robert Lansdale, PC Editor of the Photographic Historical Society of Canada (PHSC) for making me aware of William J. Johnston’s Canadian roots as well as the role of his partner Fred W. Brehm in refining the early design of the Cirkut. The PHSC was formed in 1974 to advance the knowledge of and interest in the history of photography, particularly of photography in Canada. The PHSC website at http://phsc.ca has a wealth of information about historic cameras, processes and images. It’s well worth a visit.
The best way to understand how the Cirkut camera works is to see it in action. Click on the play button to start this brief video.